Diaspora as Praxis: Building Black Consciousness in Buenos Aires

Cine Debate: I Am Not Your Negro in the Espacio Malcom (Photo: Nicolás Parodi/DIAFAR).

Located in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Villa Crespo, the newly minted Espacio Malcolm–named after Malcolm X and also known as the “Blackbershop”–exists as a hub of African Diasporic thought, practice, and community building. As one waits to get a fresh cut–which the center offers as a service–it is impossible to ignore the paintings of Black fists and afros, the sound of Anderson .Paak on the stereo, the candombe drums, or the center’s extensive collection of books from throughout the African Diaspora. Here, one can find and purchase Spanish translations of works from Franz Fanon, Achile Mbembe, and Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor, to name but a few.

On a balmy Saturday night in April, I visited the center in order to participate in one of its free and open to the public “Cine/ Debate” activities, which feature a movie screening and subsequent discussion. Slated for my visit was the critically acclaimed documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Of course, James Baldwin’s take on the history of U.S. racism was riveting, but as the only Black American in the audience, I was more curious about the reactions from my fellow movie-goers, who hailed from France, Brazil, Colombia, and Argentina. The discussion, just like the movie, did not disappoint. Federico Pita, activist, political scientist, and one of the center’s leaders, facilitated the discussion and challenged us to consider the differences and similarities between Baldwin’s analysis of twentieth century U.S. racism and contemporary Argentine social dynamics.

This kind of discussion and space – one that critically engages with the history of global Black freedom struggles in order to understand contemporary Argentine racism–was certainly not what I was expecting within the so-called “whitest” nation in Latin America. However, recent scholarship within both the U.S. and Argentine academies have called into question the presumed racial homogeneity of Argentina and its status as the “whitest” nation in the region.1 According to historians Paulina Alberto and Eduardo Elena, the category of whiteness in Argentina has been capacious and flexible, bestowing the label of “white” onto an otherwise “multi-hued” population. By contrast, the category of “Black” applies to an ever-smaller number of people since it relies on a set of stereotypical phenotypic characteristics (e.g. kinky or curly hair, dark skin, large lips) that all have to present in the same individual in order for he or she to be read as “Black.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, such an expansive notion of whiteness sustains the image of a “white” Argentina. But while these scholarly advances are long overdue, the myth of Argentina’s whiteness still effectively renders the nation as, at the very least, a non-Black space.  The dominant historical referents of Argentine national identity are still the millions of primarily Spanish and Italian immigrants (assumed to be “white”) who came to the country around the turn of the twentieth century. They are not the hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans forcibly brought to the region at the height of the Río de la Plata’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade, nor their descendants that fought in the nation’s wars of independence, nor those that shaped Argentina’s most recognizable cultural form: tango.  Thus, when Argentines say, as they often do, that they “descend from ships,” they refer to and imagine the ships that carried hopeful European immigrants in pursuit of the promise of a new life; not to those that carried the enslaved Africans forcibly removed from their native lands and cultures.

The Espacio Malcolm is not simply unique because it is a beacon of blackness within a sea of presumed white homogeneity. It is unique because of the particular ways in which it centers the global African Diaspora in its public mission to foment a “conciencia negra,” or a Black consciousness, in Buenos Aires. In my follow up conversation with Pita, he noted that the parent organization of the Espacio Malcolm, DIAFAR or Diaspora Africana de la Argentina, was created shortly after and in the spirit of the African Union’s formal recognition of the African Diaspora as the sixth region of the continent in 2003. Indeed, the South African embassy in Buenos Aires funded the necessary legal expenses for granting DIAFAR the legal status of an NGO.

But what exactly does a “conciencia negra” look like within the Espacio Malcolm specifically, and in Argentina more broadly?  How do the members of DIAFAR concretely nurture such a way of thinking?  Simply put, they achieve their goal through pedagogy and community building. The programming of the Espacio Malcolm is nothing short of extraordinary: one can attend a free screening of I Am Not Your Negro, as I did, and discuss the lessons that it has for other parts of the African Diaspora, including Argentina. One can attend any of the center’s three-hour seminars, with topics ranging from the history of Afro-Argentines and their supposed “disappearance,” to the Haitian Revolution, to Black Feminism, and to Black Internationalism. One can participate in the center’s free “Poder Negro,” or “Black Power,” reading group, which centers “learning in community.” Or, one can simply hang out in the Espacio Malcolm, get a haircut, and have a critical discussion about the politics of Black Panther

These are outlets available to those in Buenos Aires, but in 2014 DIAFAR extended its vision of “conciencia negra” to those outside the city limits with its periodical, El Afroargentino. Introduced as the “first periodical of the Afro-Argentine community of the twenty-first century,” El Afroargentino certainly carries the legacy of Buenos Aires’ thriving black press of the late nineteenth century. But according to Pita, who is also the paper’s owner and director, El Afroargentino has a more decidedly political and pedagogical mission than that of its predecessors. It aims to connect its readers to the history of Black diasporic thought by introducing concepts such as the “Black Atlantic” or intersectionality, while also publishing articles that connect specific political struggles throughout the African Diaspora to those within Argentina. The paper’s sixth edition, for example, featured an article on the similarities between contemporary structural racism and institutional violence in the U.S., Brazil, and Argentina.2 The article’s analysis of Black Lives Matter in the United States and the conglomerate of Black organizations, intellectuals, and artists against the “Genocido do Povo Negro” in Brazil, functions as a lens through which to appreciate the significance of Argentine organizations such as the Compaña Nacional Contra la Violencia Institucional, which insist on the correlation between police violence, surveillance, and phenotype, particularly darker skin tones. Indeed, one of the National Campaign’s slogans “Mi piel no es delito,” or “My skin is not a crime,” does the necessary rhetorical and political work of articulating a specific manifestation of Argentine racism that not only impacts Argentines of African descent, but also the various non-white immigrant communities–including Venezuelan, Bolivian, and Paraguayan–that inhabit the nation’s large metropolitan regions.

Through these outlets, a clear vision of “conciencia negra” emerges:  it is a vision of Black liberation that does not merely celebrate the global African Diaspora culturally nor does it blindly import and decontextualize its schools of thought. Rather, it positions African Diasporic thought and political praxis as the lens through which to understand contemporary Argentine racism. It is a kind of dialogue that keeps the differences between national contexts in mind, but is inspired by the similarities and links that grant cohesion to the global African Diaspora.

It is clear that one of the guiding lines of inquiry within the Espacio Malcolm is: what can the various histories of political and social struggle throughout the African Diaspora teach us, as Argentines of African descent? Given that my own research partly focuses on the Afro-Argentine community living in Buenos Aires during the final quarter of the nineteenth century, I remain in awe of the continued role and importance of the African Diaspora in the construction and articulation of certain kinds of “blackness” within this region. But it is equally important to consider the particular lessons around racial formation and African Diasporic thought that Argentina can teach us, as people of African descent from other parts of the world. This lesson is perhaps a simple and obvious one for scholars of the African Diaspora: the transnational conversations of the African Diaspora, ones that have often critiqued colonialism, empire, patriarchy, and white supremacy, can function as useful tools for combating discourses of historical erasure and informing local meanings of a supposedly “disappeared” social identity.

  1.   Eva Lamborghini and Lea Geler, “Presentación del debate: Imágenes racializadas: políticas de representación y economía visual en torno a lo ‘negro’ en Argentina, siglos XX y XXI,” Corpus. Archivos virtuales de la alteridad americana, no. Vol 6, No 2 (December 20, 2016)
  2.  “Enemigos públicos,” El Afroargentino (Buenos Aires, Argentina) Año II, Num. 6.
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Keyanah Freeland

Keyanah Freeland is a PhD Candidate in the History of the African Diaspora at New York University. Her dissertation, titled "Race, Nation, and Diaspora in the Río de la Plata, 1870-1900," analyzes the relationship between diasporic connections (whether they be real or imagined) and racial formation among the Afro-Argentine community in Buenos Aires and the Afro-Uruguayan community in Montevideo at the end of the nineteenth century.

Comments on “Diaspora as Praxis: Building Black Consciousness in Buenos Aires

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    Thank you for writing this article, very informative.

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